An Arsenal Under-21 side including Abou Diaby and Andre Santos started 2013 with a 1-1 draw at home to West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday afternoon.
After going behind to Adil Nabi’s header midway through the first half, Terry Burton’s side equalised on the stroke of half time after Santos finished a fine team move.
Emmanuel Frimpong was sent off near the end of the game for a second bookable offence as the hosts were forced to settle for a point against their stubborn visitors.
Burton named a strong side for the first game of the Elite Group stage. Diaby made his first appearance since sustaining a thigh strain against Chelsea in late September, while Santos, whose last first-team appearance came in the 5-2 win against Tottenham in November, also started.
They were joined by the likes of Carl Jenkinson, Francis Coquelin, Frimpong and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, with Vito Mannone in goal.
The game began without much incident. Too often, Burton’s side threatened to force an opportunity, only to be let down by a stray final ball.
They dominated possession in the early stages, but it was the visitors that forced the first opportunity of the game as Nabi’s shot from outside the area was parried away by Mannone.
Arsenal responded well and, after Thomas Eisfeld’s dangerous cross had only been partially cleared, Coquelin drilled a 30-yard volley off target.
With the imposing Diaby orchestrating proceedings from midfield, the home side continued to see more of the ball. A nice move culminated in Frimpong’s centre being cleared just in front of Chuba Akpom, who had previously just strayed offside when Jenkinson’s raking pass had looked to set him free.
It came as a surprise then that Arsenal fell behind after enjoying the better of the opening 20 minutes.
Sam Mantom floated in a free-kick that was met by the head of Nabi, who looped a header over the standed Mannone.
Almost immediately Frimpong - playing in an unfamiliar left-wing role - saw a powerful shot deflected into the arms of Luke Daniels.
Then at the other end, Romaine Sawyers beat the offside trap before Mannone came out quickly to smother his shot.
The action quickly returned to the other end and, after picking the ball up in space, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s swerving shot from fully 25 yards was parried away by Daniels.
Burton’s team were finishing the half well. A sliding Frimpong was inches away from connecting with Jenkinson’s searching cross, before they finally drew level on the stroke of the half-time interval.
Diaby picked up possession midway inside the visitors’ half. The Frenchman drilled a pass into the path of Frimpong, who dummied the ball to set the overlapping Santos free. The left back made no mistake, striding into the penalty area before clinically slotting the ball into the far corner.
The returning Diaby had produced an impressive display in the heart of midfield. He embarked on a surging run 52 minutes in, before setting Oxlade-Chamberlain away down the right. The winger advanced to the byline before crossing for Akpom, whose header was parried away by Daniels at point-blank range.
With the visitors dropping deeper in the second half, Arsenal continued to enjoy the majority of possession. However, in a similar trend to the first half, they often struggled to find the killer pass.
Santos came close to his second just after the hour, curling a free-kick a yard wide of Daniels’ post.
Burton withdrew Diaby 25 minutes from time. The 26-year-old had been the home side’s stand-out performer and will no doubt have been happy to complete more than an hour on his return to action.
Conor Henderson, back from his loan spell at Coventry, replaced Diaby and forced Daniels into a comfortable save from long range, before the same player broke into the area with 15 minutes to play, only to see his pull-back in the direction of Eisfeld cleared to safety.
After being pinned into their own half for the majority of the second period, West Brom and Nabi twice came close to stealing victory.
First, the forward was denied by a sharp stop from Mannone after the goalkeeper’s weak pass had created the chance. Then, his effort from outside the area looked destined for the net before Martin Angha got up to flick the ball over the crossbar.
The afternoon’s display was tarnished late on, when, having already been booked, Frimpong was sent off for kicking the ball away, having committed an earlier foul.
All in all though, this was an encouraging workout and a solid start to the new year for Burton’s team.
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